Yohan Perera: Inspiring Social Change Through Design

Many graphic design professionals first begin to immerse themselves in their field at an early age, typically inspired by a love for drawing or crafting visuals to channel their personal creativity. But Yohan Perera’s earliest experiences confirmed for him that design can be used as a vehicle for social change – a revelation that inspired him to travel from his home in Sri Lanka to study as an international student in Full Sail University’s Digital Arts & Design program and eventually land a position at Washington, D.C.-based social enterprise TechChange.

Growing up in Sri Lanka’s capital city Colombo, Yohan witnessed first-hand the effect that his country’s 30-year civil war had on both his immediate surroundings and the nation as a whole. His involvement in youth group Sri Lanka Unite found him volunteering with other high school students seeking to inspire the next generation of his country and unite a society torn by racial and religious lines. And one of the ways that he was able to help was through his design work.

“I definitely wasn’t a professional, but I had dabbled with Photoshop a little bit,” Yohan says. “I got to design posters, stickers, and t-shirts for a campaign to stop harassment of women, which is a problem in this developing nation. When I saw the results of my work, it all started making sense. I saw that design could be used for more than just consumerism.”

Energized by his newfound discovery, Yohan dedicated most of his attention towards these extracurricular activities – sometimes to the detriment of the traditional Sri Lankan academic trajectory. The country’s Advanced Level – an intense entrance exam determining students’ eligibility to attend state universities – fell short on his list of priorities, as he ultimately failed the test.

“If you fail that exam, people in Sri Lanka look at you as if you failed life. I was too involved in school activities and wasn’t studying,” Yohan says. “I didn’t really want to follow that traditional path, but it would have still been nice to pass. But for me, school was more about getting involved in organizing events. I was motivated by that, and not by studying accounting.”

Around the same time, a peer mentor of Yohan’s returned from a trip to the United States and recommended that he look into attending Full Sail University. After getting accepted and with the help of some of the school’s scholarship opportunities, Yohan took the big step of moving to another country to attend college – but Full Sail’s campus provided him with more of a culture shock than the act of living on the opposite side of the globe.

“Everything was so different. I come from such a conservative Sri Lankan background, and everyone at Full Sail was so focused on doing what you love and having fun,” he says. “The first few months were very tough. I had no money for housing, so a family from the church housed me for the first year, and then I had different families and friends house me for the rest of my time in the Digital Arts & Design program.”

Surrounded by like-minded creative individuals, Yohan excelled in his studies, graduating as class valedictorian and soon after starting his career at TechChange. As the in-house graphic designer for the company, he helps to create visual assets for different entities in D.C.’s international development community, including branding, icons, and custom animation for educational course modules created by the business’s clients, including UNICEF and IntraHealth International. Courses cover a variety of topics ranging from social change to public health to emergency response. But one of the most challenging work projects Yohan has taken on since joining the company has been creating the UI/UX for TechChange’s new website.

“Usually an organization would have a ton of designers working on a project of that scope, but the current branding and design of the website has been my brainchild. We had a ton of wonderful programmers, but front-end was all on me,” Yohan says. “A lot of the things I would design in Illustrator would often be difficult to translate to the programming side, so there ended up being a lot of back and forth compromising, but I feel like it’s done and it’s better than what we had. If you look agh the international development arena, design hasn’t seemed to be an area that most organizations really focus on, but things are getting better. People are starting to understand that design does help a lot – it’s a lot more functional than just having pretty pictures.”

Yohan has carried that philosophy into his current-day extracurricular activities – which coincidentally seem very similar to the extracurricular activities of his past. Since moving to the States, he’s played a significant role in Sri Lanka Unite and its parent organization, Global Unite; he even designed the logo for the latter organization while he was still at Full Sail.

“We wanted to take what we did with Sri Lanka Unite and apply it to similar situations in countries such as Congo and Kenya, and help bring their communities together. My mentor and I started brainstorming on this amazing international movement while I was still in college,” he says. “I got to design their logo and all of their branding from the bottom up.”

That international movement not only launched in 2013, but came to pass with a large international conference held in Sri Lanka. Delegates from 18 different countries attended the event, during which Yohan’s design work played an important role in showcasing Sri Lanka Unite’s strategy to other nations to use as an example for their own community work.

“We wanted to inspire other movements that were starting or were already in progress. They all need to feel like this is something they can look towards, and design plays an important role in that. We didn’t leave design behind,” says Yohan. “Seeing my design work being put into consideration for those movements was humbling and really unimaginable. More than anything else, I’m inspired by my ability to inspire other people through design.”